Thursday, June 9, 2022

Gold as Experience

As characters meet monsters in mortal combat and defeat them, and when they obtain various forms of treasure (money, gems, jewelry, magical items, etc.), they gain "experience". This adds to their experience point total, gradually moving them upwards through the levels.

Dungeons & Dragons, Volume 1, p. 18 (1974)

The importance of finding treasure to a character's level advancement is a foundational feature of the Gygaxian presentation of D&D. In fact, after the publication of Greyhawk in 1975, which introduced a new – and less rewarding – method for calculating the XP of defeating monsters, finding treasure only rose became more importance. In AD&D, which uses a roughly similar system, Gygax explains that the system is intended to be an abstraction rather than reflective the in-game activities by which a character might "actually" advance in the skills and abilities of his chosen class.

I have never had any significant problems with this set-up. I accepted it without question when I was first introduced to D&D more than forty years ago and have made good use of it in multiple campaigns in the years since (including in my D&D-derived Empire of the Petal Throne campaign). I largely agree with Gygax that it's a perfectly workable compromise for a game whose rules don't (generally) possess a high degree of detail (see the one-minute combat round as another example of this in action).

However – you knew there'd be a "however" – I've been thinking lately about the need for experience and advancement systems for roleplaying games. In doing so, I began to think about the idea of using gold and other monetary treasure in a slightly different way. In Chaosium's RuneQuest, characters can improve both characteristics and skills through training. This training takes two things: time and money. A character who lacks either cannot make use of this method of improvement and must instead rely on the much more unpredictable method of experience rolls after the successful use of a skill in an adventure. It's worth noting, too, that even spells are acquired by "buying" them, usually from a cult.

Beginning characters often lack sufficient funds to buy all the training and spells they desire. That's why the cults and guilds of RuneQuest sometimes extend credit to neophytes, enabling them to take on a debt in exchange for training. This not only makes beginning characters a little more prepared for the adventuring life than they would otherwise be, but it establishes a connection between the character and the cult. In this way, beginning characters are immediately connected to the setting, one the referee can then use in the course of the campaign. It's an inspired idea to my mind and one I think more games should look to for inspiration.

This brings me back to the use of gold as a measure of experience in Dungeons & Dragons. As I've been thinking about this matter, I find myself wanting something akin to RuneQuest. Instead of a character simply improving all of his class-based abilities as soon as his experience total reaches a certain threshold, wouldn't it be more interesting – I won't say "realistic" – if instead he could use his gold to buy training that improved his abilities piecemeal. For example, he could employ a weapons master to increase his combat skills or acquire access to new spells at the sorcerer's guild and so on. Even mechanics like hit points and saving throws could be acquired through training of some sort or another. 

Now, I realize that AD&D at least already possesses training rules and that, to some extent, they exist to explain the purpose of the large sums of money needed to gain new levels. However, like so much in D&D and its descendants, they're very abstract, more abstract, I would argue, than many similar systems in the game. Mind you, I speak from some degree of ignorance, since I cannot recall ever having made use of these rules, nor did I ever know anyone who had, until relatively recently. It's quite possible that AD&D's rules work very well and achieve the kind of in-setting connection I increasingly see as vital to a campaign's long term success.

One thing the AD&D training rules do seem to do is take time. Much like those in RuneQuest, a character will spend weeks of in-game time training the new abilities he's acquired upon gaining a level. That's something I very much appreciate. Between my House of Worms campaign and the Pendragon campaign in which I'm currently playing, I am more convinced than ever that a long campaign should encompass years or in-game time, with characters and events growing and changing in the process. This is an area where RPGs excel and it ought to be embraced. 


  1. I think things like age tables for the various races and the time it takes to commission the crafting of magic items/weapons support what you're saying about campaigns being long-term affairs both in the real world and in-game.

  2. The gold as experience for D&D certainly has a value of encouraging alternate solutions that just killing monsters. But then the PCs are acquiring all this gold with nothing to spend it on until a castle or other structure is attainable, if that ever makes sense. In the meantime, low level characters quickly earn more gold than they can reasonably spend. But adding training costs never seems to really work. Even changing from experience for earning gold to experience for spending gold never sits quite right and seems contrived.

    So RuneQuest was huge for having spending treasure to improve integrated into the system so well. But it seems to be a model not often replicated, not even really in the other BRP games. But it meshed so well with cults that not only extend credit, but also offer discounts on certain skills and spells (a feature that I think has been broken after the 2nd edition).

    I'm not personally into it but the new edition of RQ brings passage of calendar time into play by having one adventure per season, though I feel like that could come off as artificial. I think a good setup makes passage of time organic and allows it to be in tension with sometimes needing to do things on a tight schedule. So there isn't always time to train for the next adventure in RQ.

    Traveller, with it's one week travel times creates a different model for passage of time. Of course money can be used to reduce that for longer trips (buy a ship that can do longer jumps). Traveller also as discussed previously has less character advancement, yet it provides plenty to spend money on.

    Back on the subject of having something to spend treasure on, in college I was introduced to an older group who were playing a game designed by one of their group. Cold Iron as the game eventually was named features magic items that are primarily "charged" or single use (potions) that can be purchased in town. PCs collect treasure on adventures (granted, they way I ended up running and most of the other games played - combat heavy adventures). Some of the treasure is magic items they can use, other treasure is pure cash and some is magic items they can't use but can sell in town. Sometimes training was available but at least my games never focused on that.

    Playing RQ, Traveller, and Cold Iron made me really appreciate games that have a good "economy" between adventure and improvement. There are certainly other models, but I keep returning to these games because the motivation to adventure is so easily understood.

  3. I'll need to dig around a bit, but HackMaster 4E, the "parody" of AD&D 1E, took the training system and really made it sing. It made it, and the relationships with guilds and schools and trainers and such, and integral part of the experience, with a very enriching effect on the campaign.

    I'll get my books out and see if I can distill how it worked in a post.

  4. The EverQuest MMO combined, and I suppose still combines, a very D&D inspired class and level system with a fine grained system of training points in specific areas.

    So the EverQuest TTRPG would be somewhere else to look

  5. The D&D Master Rules and the Rules Cyclopedia have rules for weapon mastery. While similar to weapon specialization introduced in Unearthed Arcana for 1e, weapon mastery has more "levels" to it and requires additional time and money. Courtney Campbell used a similar system in his Numenhalla campaign, and I found it to be highly effective. Fighter types tend to be a little under powered in OD&D and B/X to my mind because their to-hit probabilities don't increase as fast as in 1e and they don't get extra attacks. Weapon mastery solves this, and provides a mechanism to take some money away from the PCs and force them to have some downtime in order to improve, which then necessitates players playing different a PC for a session or more.
    While a completely different sort of RPG, Ars Magica has great rules for characters improving through downtime and training.

  6. Tomb raiders and assorted low-life PCs just don't strike me as the kind of people who'd go back to school to train to become better rogues. Much better to just say they squander half their gold per week on carousing (as per the d20 Conan RPG).
    XP for gold is an excellent, but abstract measure. Look at a hundred tomb raiders: those who brought back the most gold are most likely more clever, better fighters, faster learners etc. So a good haul indicates - statistically! - that a given delver is more competent than others.
    (The gold itself or successfully getting it out of the dungeon does nothing to improve an individual's skills. He'd have learned just as much if the gold turned out to be fake.)

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  8. As D&D has exploration (whether underworld or wilderness) as one of its pillars, you could award xp for each unit of travel. MERP had travel xp as part of its rule system.

    Another way might be to award xp per turn of exploration (10min and 1d).

    Exploration being new ground

  9. The training system in HackMaster 4E is essentially derived from the training system outlined in the AD&D 1E Dungeon Masters Guide. However, rather than merely being a "gp sink," the training system in HM4 is designed to be an integral part of the campaign world. It has bene expanded greatly to include various sorts of training organizations, from the Kobars, which are essentially cut-rate "for profit schools," to universities, or learning under a master, or at a guild or monastery, etc., depending on your character's class.

    The training experience has many opportunities for role-playing in and of itself; it is not just a matter of saying, "ok, you train for three weeks and get your level." There are tables for determining how well the training goes, if you get new allies or enemies, learn more or less than you are supposed to (HM4 has a very robust skill system), and so forth. Each of the class-based "splatsbooks" adds even more detail, including training locales specific to those classes and the campaign setting (Garweeze Wurld, for HM4).

    Taken all together, the training system in HM4 takes the AD&D 1E training system, expands it, and makes it an integral part of the character experience. In the hands of a good GM, it makes something that might otherwise seem to be a chore into a cool experience.

    After rereading through it, I'm considering adapting it to my own Labyrinth Lord games. I am also reminded of the various training options added into D&D 5E through their recent series of books; it seems they might have taken a few cues from the HM4 materials, too...

  10. It seems to me that fighting ability could go up naturally with experience/levelling up, but new spells would have to be learned someplace - they would not automatically pop into the spellcaster's head. I'd say the same for new feats and class abilities if you're playing one of the later D&D versions.

  11. It's important that level advancement can also occur outside of heavily populated areas. All these notions of heavy guild involvement presupposes a certain campaign setting.

  12. I've been thinking of it as well but starting in another direction: the "class" part of character class, & trying to reconcile treasure with some sort of economic verisimilitude. Not sure how to put it eloquently & it is just something I've been noodling: basically using GP more as an abstraction that lets you purchase features/advancements in town. Sort of the "lifestyle" system that lets you hand wave paying for drinks & meals, but way jumped up. Buying your way into a knighthood or university, upgrading to a baronet or a bishopric...